On Labor Day weekend, Ocean City sunbathers may notice an unusual come-on among the aerial banners touting happy-hour drink specials and marriage proposals: an invitation to join Maryland Natural Resources Police.
Facing what it believed to be the largest manpower shortage in its 143-year history, the state law enforcement agency is using every platform possible — including the salty air above sandy beaches — to fill its next academy class and those beyond.
"It's scary," says Capt. Robert Davis, NRP adjutant and a 30-year veteran. "We're seeing a lot more people going out the door than coming in. Our mission is a good one, and we're trying to keep it a viable organization."
But the NRP is competing with federal, state and local police forces that find themselves in the same squeeze. Baltimore, for example, hopes to attract up to 450 officers to fill its depleted department, Howard County is testing for entry-level positions this month and next with an eye toward next year, and Maryland State Police is advertising for troopers, paramedics and cadets to find 90 candidates for a training academy in January.
Municipalities and state agencies struggle to match the salaries, benefits and job security offered by the federal government and some private contractors. And then there's this: Most young people entering the workforce just aren't interested in law enforcement careers, say recruiters. The problem has become the focus of Department of Justice studies and tutorials sponsored by groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
A recruitment poster in the sky is something a little retro — a little different — to boost the NRP's visibility, Davis says.
Tracy Phillips, senior project specialist for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, says she's never heard of the aerial-banner approach, but she likes it.
"You've got to be creative. You've got to be competitive. You've got to put your message where the people are," she says.
That would be Ocean City, where Bob Bunting of Ocean Aerial Ads says a banner has a daily potential audience of 250,000 to 300,000 people. In his 29 years of flying the beaches, he has spotlighted job searches for nurses and teachers, but he cannot recall doing the same for a police force. The NRP has paid $1,250 for five passes over the beach during the weekend.
According to a recent survey by the IACP, the No. 1 police recruiting tool remains word of mouth, used by 95 percent of respondents. Newspaper ads follow at 83 percent, with job fairs and community colleges providing most of the remaining applicants.
But social media is catching on, Phillips says. Last year, 23 percent of departments nationwide said they are seeking recruits online. This summer, the Kentucky State Police launched a social media blitz that includes recruitment videos on YouTube, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.
That's a far cry from in 1998, when Prince George's County recruiters tried to woo seasoned staff by placing fliers on the windshields of marked patrol cars in Towson and handing out literature to city officers in station-house parking lots.
In Maryland, 25 departments have Facebook pages, eight use Twitter and five post videos on YouTube, according to the IACP. (Baltimore Police is No. 2 behind Boston for most Twitter followers for a large municipal department.) While most agencies use social media to inform the public as part of community policing or as a way to collect crime tips, Maryland State Police, like the NRP, uses its page as a recruiting tool.
State Police recruiter 1st Sgt. James Russell says the agency began using Facebook earlier this year and the electronic effort now includes scan bars on pamphlets to allow access via smartphone.
"We need to attract a younger generation, and they want to see information instantly," he says. "That's how we reach them."
The NRP's situation is at a critical point, Davis says. In 2006, the General Assembly authorized the agency to have a total force of 280. But with budget problems and other state priorities, that number has slipped to 249. That leaves fewer than 180 field officers to patrol a half-million acres of public land and 17,000 miles of waterways and guard potential terrorism targets such as the Bay Bridge and the Cove Point LNG docks in Calvert County.
The department estimates that over the next six years, almost 50 percent of its officers will retire.
The NRP would like to start an academy class of about 20 recruits sometime after the first of the year. But that doesn't mean stopping after getting 20 applicants.
With physical, mental and medical tests and extensive background checks, it can take as many as 20 applicants to translate into one graduate. And at a cost of $30,000 to train and equip a NRP officer and another $140,000 a year for salary and benefits, the agency has to choose carefully, Davis says.
That is putting pressure on the NRP's new recruitment officer, Mance McCall III, who is going to churches, ethnic fairs and outdoors businesses, such as Bass Pro Shop at Arundel Mills.
"It's sad that it's gotten this bad," says McCall. "So I have to hit every place you can think of and some you haven't. That includes going airborne."